Much has been written over the years about the creative partnership between director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman. It now stretches back 25 years and encompasses such successful and well regarded films as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as the animated classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. Despite it having been repeated ad nauseum to the point that it's almost a cliché, theirs is one of the most enduring and fruitful composer/director collaborations in cinema today; the two men complement each other intellectually and stylistically, and clearly Burton's visual style brings out the best in Elfman's music. Alice in Wonderland is a prime example of this.
Burton's take on the classic Lewis Carroll tale is an unusual one; he has explicitly stated that it is not a sequel, or a remake, or even a proper re-imagining, but instead takes all the familiar elements of the Alice story and churns them around into a curious new thing entirely. The film follows the adventures of young Alice Kingsleigh (newcomer Mia Wasikowska) a Victorian teenager who, after receiving an unwelcome marriage proposal, runs away; following a mysterious white rabbit, she accidentally falls down a rabbit hole and re-emerges in the magical land she visited as a child, although she has no memories of her adventures there years before. Through various encounters with the eccentric inhabitants of Wonderland, Alice discovers that since her departure the evil Queen of Hearts has usurped the crown and now rules wonderland with an iron fist, but fears Alice's return on account of a prophecy which says that Alice will slay the Jabberwocky, a giant dragon under the Red Queen's control, and in doing so will end her reign of terror. The visually overwhelming film, which was filmed in a combination of live action and 3-D animation, features a whole host of British and international acting talent in supporting roles, including Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Matt Lucas as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, and Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit.
Danny Elfman's writing style has altered considerably since he scored his very first film, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in 1985. From his earliest days emulating his idols Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann to his intellectual, pseudo-classical, occasionally minimalist recent work, over the years Elfman has grown into a "proper" composer of stature and technique, with an identifiable style and sound. Nevertheless, many consider his `golden period' to be the years between 1988 and 1995, beginning with Beetlejuice and ending roughly with Dolores Claiborne. Fans of his work often pine for these glory years of emotional themes, dark crescendos and fantastical whimsy, and although he has revisited the style briefly in a few scores here and there, Elfman has steadfastly moved away from his cooing choirs and twinkly orchestrations in favor of his new, more modernistic style. It is for this reason that Alice in Wonderland will be embraced wholeheartedly by his long-standing admirers, because it hearkens back completely to those wonderful scores of the late 1980s and early 1990s, more so than any other Elfman score in over a decade. It's a score replete with rich, lustrous melodies, moody minor-key chord progressions, magical orchestrations, innocently cooing boy's choirs, and even some thunderous action music that will make admirers of scores like Batman quiver in their pants.
Rather than take a multi-character leitmotif approach to the score (which composers on fantasy films often do), Elfman's three main themes are all for Alice: they represent her past, present and future, and intertwine throughout the length of the score, cleverly illustrating the story's central idea that Alice's long-forgotten history with Wonderland is influencing her present, and altering the course of its future. The main theme, heard in the opening "Alice Theme" is strong and memorable, with a driving rhythmic core, and a clipped, staccato vocal performance by a boy's choir. Performed by the full orchestra, with initial emphasis on lilting strings, the theme builds in scope and grandeur as it progresses, picking up a powerful brass section and booming percussion hits punctuated by Gothic pipe organ chords. The lyrics - apparently a last minute addition to the score by Elfman - are appropriately downbeat, and reflect further upon the film's themes of uncertainty, choice and fate: "How can you know this way not that? You choose the door you choose the path. Perhaps you should be coming back, another day, another day".
The second theme, for Alice's past, actually forms part of the bridge between verses of the main Alice theme in the opening cue, before receiving its first prominent performance in the second cue, "Little Alice", where it is performed by elegant woodwinds and dainty chimes. Attentive listeners will hear similarities between this theme and Elfman's theme for the 1994 film Black Beauty in the melodic progression and the vaguely Irish lilt, another pleasing throwback to Elfman's golden era. For much of the score the two themes for Alice and Little Alice intertwine with each other, inseparable, reminders of her past encounters with the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat and her new adventures in their company, although there are a couple of noticeably fuller statements, such as in the graceful "The White Queen".
The third theme is reflective of Alice's desperate future as a Victorian wife, a slightly stuffy and stately English waltz for prim woodwinds and plucked cellos. First heard in the third cue "Proposal", it is absent for a great deal of the rest of the album, featuring briefly in the lovely "Only a Dream", before reappearing prominently alongside the other two themes in the penultimate "Alice Returns" cue, signaling the end of her adventures in Wonderland and her arrival back in the real world... for now at least.
Alice's theme appears frequently throughout the score, in different guises numerous cues. Each of the five "Alice Reprises" feature fragmented performances of one of the cue's verses, again performed by a cut glass boy soprano, while cues such as "Down the Hole" restate the theme in grand fashion. Later cues such as "The Cheshire Cat" see Alice's theme being performed in a more deconstructed fashion, while many of the late-album action cues feature the theme as a heroic motif for the battle ahead. In the epic "Alice Decides" Elfman places the Alice theme at the center of a massive call-to-arms, a cacophony of choral majesty and cymbal-crashing, organ-blaring fury that is almost Lord of the Rings-esque in its lavish scope and is quite wonderful.
Even when he's writing slightly more abstract and unusual music, such as in the inebriated and unexpectedly Indian-sounding "Drink Me", the mysterious and moody "Finding Absolem", or the quite tortured-sounding "The Cheshire Cat", Elfman's music is never less than interesting. His orchestrations are clever and inventive, often working in supple electronic textures, cascading string effects, or layers of chimes under his orchestra, further enhancing his comparatively recent status of a composer who knows exactly how to manage his orchestra. Throughout it all, though, Elfman maintains the overarching sense of magical whimsy through the near-constant use of high register strings and the boy's choir, oohing and aahing a pleasing, dreamlike accompaniment.
The action music, of which there is quite a lot especially towards the end of the score, tends to be dense and quite busy, and more reflective of Elfman's more contemporary writing from scores such as Hellboy II or Wanted, although even here Elfman regularly interpolates snatches of thematic content, often to enormously satisfying effect. Cues such as the second half of "Down the Hole" and the gargantuan "Bandersnatched" are brutally exciting. "Alice and Bayard's Journey" grows into a majestic string and percussion march of dark and potent beauty, and "Alice Escapes" has a frantic energy and sense of momentum that is palpable, while the three-cue finale that comprises "Going to Battle", "The Final Confrontation" and "Blood of the Jabberwocky" is tremendous, working statements of both the main Alice and the Little Alice themes into a vibrant and heroic trio of cues that have the musical muscle to make your walls tremble.
Danny Elfman hasn't written a score this thematically rich, this orchestrally robust, or with this many intentional allusions to his most popular works in many years, and as a result Alice in Wonderland is sure to be immensely popular with anyone who grew up listening to and loving the likes of Batman and Edward Scissorhands. What's even more impressive, however, is the knowledge that Elfman's the composer of intellectual authority is as much in play here as Elfman the enthusiastic newcomer; the vibrancy of the work, the structure of the themes, the cleverness of the orchestrations and harmonies, combined with the flavors of the past, make this score indispensible. Even by his own recent high standards, it's the best Elfman score in many years, and even at this early stage a contender for the best score of 2010.